Letter from California

An archive of the weekly "Letter from Calfornia", written by Jim McCarthy.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

I've Put My Finger on the Flaws in Her Plan-April 25 2005

San Jose police this week pointed an accusing finger at Anna Ayala for attempted grand theft. Be warned that finger jokes of that kind will continue right til the end of this column, but I promise to use them only to point out the true ridiculousness of the Finger-in-the-Chili episode.

In this country, people are considered innocent until proven guilty, but that’s just in the courts. Everywhere else, it’s perfectly permissible to make snap judgments about the painfully obvious. For example, Congress may not have been able to get McGwire and Bonds to fess up to hitting the juice, but if any of you have ever been men who turned 35, you know that symptoms of that period in your life do not typically include massive weight gain in the chest and arms. Massive weight gains, possibly, but not there. And those of you who have never been a 35 year old man, have you ever heard of one of that group report dramatic gains in strength? Perhaps you heard one of them say, “Yeah, I can tell I’m getting a little older. I can suddenly bench press twice my weight.” Or maybe his wife takes a look at his aging physique and comments lovingly, “you’re not getting any younger, hon. If you don’t watch it, you’re going to need to get shirts with a bigger chest size.” Not likely. Barry, Mark, you did it. Sorry. Now go console yourself with your fame, your legions of fans, your and millions of dollars.

Likewise, all signs point to Anna Ayala as the mysterious source of the extra ingredient in the Wendy’s Chili, not some unfortunate victim of the chili-chopping machine. What’s both funny and terrifying about that is not so much that she put a finger in her own chili, but that she had to get that finger from somewhere. Las Vegas police determined that the finger had not been cooked in chili at any point and you have to trust that because they’ve got Grissom and the gang doing the tests on things like this. That means Ayala just dropped it in there and then put it in her mouth for dramatic effect. Gross.

Why, oh, why would someone do that? I can’t even imagine…is she an activist trying to demonstrate the insecurity of the American food system? Perhaps she’s a disgruntled former Wendy’s employee with a crazy vendetta? A loan shark with a customer in arrears to the tune of one digit?

Nope, just a woman with a dream. And someone else’s finger. The dream is to rip off a big company like Wendy’s by making an easily disproved claim similar to small-timey hoaxes she’s pulled before. Just last year, she accused El Pollo Loco of poisoning her daughter. Then, she sold a trailer that didn’t belong to her to a woman who spoke no English. I guess this time she got the idea, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup-like, to put two great scams together: ripping off a fast food joint and telling bald-faced bald-lies that are bound to catch up with her. She’s got a long and distinguished career in coming up with half-baked schemes that don’t really work and make her look both wicked and pathetic at the same time, like some kind of trailer park Dr. Evil character, but not funny.

You hear about how people don’t always believe in the justice system anymore, and there’s some logic to that. Even if you’re a total has-been actor who nobody under the age of 35 has ever heard of, you still seem to be able to buy your way out of a lot of trouble, Robert Blake. At least, that’s how it goes sometimes. And it seems that people like Ayala can make a living by accusing people of poisoning, harassing and otherwise ruining her otherwise blissful life.

Not this time, though. Ayala’s not only on the hook for attempted grand theft but she’s also looking at a financial punishment for all the sales Wendy’s lost, which is millions and millions of dollars. It’ll take her years of suing people to pay all that back. It’s hard not to feel pretty good about that. On the other hand, she was sitting at home watching “Meet the Fockers” when the police knocked her door down, so it’s also hard not to feel a little pity for her too. She should sue the makers of that movie for negligent use of legendary actors in annoying and clichéd roles.

But she won’t. She’s a dim bulb, because this little web of deceit is so stupid and obvious that Barney Fife wouldn’t even feel the need to mention it to Andy before taking care of this caper. People rip off big companies for real money every day. Sad but true, and it doesn’t take a genius.

This episode proves, though, that it can’t be done by a moron. God Bless America.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Still Better Than Pauly Shore After 50 Years-April 18, 2005

Southern California has given a lot to the world. The “Police Academy” movies for example. And Pauly Shore. Don’t forget the OJ, Robert Blake and Michael Jackson trials. You won’t be surprised to learn that Monica Lewinski and Paris Hilton grew up in LA. It’s a decent bet that the expression “all that and a bag of chips” came from here too.

Sorry about all that.

This week, though, we’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of something from here that people actually like. Back in 1955, the McDonald brothers started a little burger stand in Monrovia, California called The Airdrome. A few years later, this morphed into a McDonalds restaurant, where the reliably hot burgers and crack-laced French fries had them lined up around the block.

Now, there are so many McDonald’s that the company has been thinking of building a moving sidewalk connecting them all. Even when I was a kid, the stores had an impressive running tally on their signs of the number of burgers McDonald’s had ever served. Store managers would dutifully climb a ladder every couple of weeks and change the number of billions served, but they only had two digits to work with. As McDonald’s got close to 100 billion, we all wondered what would happen. Would they just stop at 99? Would they add another digit? Or would the stars simply start going out in the night sky, one by one, as the world came to a strange end?

So then and now, it’s pretty obvious that people like McDonald’s. A lot of them. They go into McDonald’s all over the world for burgers, fries, and sodas the size of their heads. A Big Mac beats hunger like it talked trash about its mama. The shakes may or may not have any dairy products in them, but they’re still a very pleasant sugar delivery mechanism. And the fries? Dunked in hot oil not once but twice. What’s not to like?

Of course, some people claim not to enjoy McDonald’s. They find the food uninteresting or they resent the lack of healthy options. They’d much rather patronize a local business with some colorful and unique options instead of giving their money to the mega-corporation McDonald’s has become. They have principles and standards, which keep them away from the Golden Arches.

They’re also liars.

All of them, or at least the ones who’ve lived most of their lives in countries not run by a somebody they have to refer to as “Dear Leader,” have had at least one moment where McDonald’s was the most satisfying meal they could possibly imagine. Maybe it was a super late night at work and they wanted something to fill them up while watching “E.R.” before hitting the sack. Or it could be after four days of backpacking and living on canned tuna and jerky. That first sip of icy cold soda and the first few hot fries actually got them all choked up and emotional, they were so happy. No matter what they tell you, this has happened somewhere, sometime, when the thought of going to the vegetarian organic, homeopathic café run by the ex-hippie who’s also a kitchen contractor just wasn’t going to work.

And if there’s somebody who never had one of these moments, they’re probably in serious therapy, and should be. Hopefully, their doctor is advising them to spend less time angry at inanimate objects like burger restaurants and more time taking deep breaths between big bites of cheeseburger.

Now, no one’s suggesting McDonald’s is good for you and should be eaten everyday. Actually, I guess McDonald’s is kinda suggesting that, through commercials and by giving you the general impression that if you go eat there, you’ll probably break into song and make a bunch of new friends at the tables nearby. If they were being more honest, the commercials would center on apartments full of grown men spending all Saturday playing Madden Football and stuffing down burgers between plays. Or it would show a woman leaving work mid-afternoon to “run an errand” as she secretly hits the drive-thru and inhales a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in the car, dumps the incriminating McDonald’s bag in a public trash can and makes the walk of shame back up to the office.

But those aren’t the kind of images we need to think about on the Golden Anniversary of the Golden Arches. Let’s focus instead on the nostalgic picture of fresh-faced teenagers in the 50’s, wearing clean, crisp uniforms and those funny white hats. Non-threatening rock and roll plays in the background and these polite young people have smiles on their faces as they serve the rich-smelling fries and burgers.

MMMM. Burger.

I’ll be ending the column now. I have to go run an errand.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Tastes Great, Less Thrilling-April 11, 2005

If you’ve never spent any time in California, I’d advise boning up on your knowledge of fancy-shmancy food and wine before you come. You don’t want to find yourself standing in the terminal at LAX ordering a hot dog from a vendor, not knowing whether you want a ciabatta roll with your andouille sausage or not. He might only be making $7.50 an hour, but at least that vendor knows whether he’s into ciabatta rolls or not. (My advice: go for the ciabatta roll and then give the poor guy a heart attack by telling him to put about a half-pint of French’s Yellow mustard on it.)

Don’t worry. You’ll catch on quickly. Any Italian-sounding bread should be fine. If you’re worried about pronouncing words like “panini” or “ciabatta” correctly, just say them really quickly and wave your hand dismissively while you order, as though it bores you just to think about it. Chances are, the person taking your order will interpret your nonchalance as knowledge (This is California, not Tuscany…what do we know?) and start copying the hatchet job you did on a perfectly decent Italian word. In your travels, you might also spot a salad somewhere in the state made from something other than iceburg lettuce. No need to panic and go looking for the nearest Denny’s. Whatever exotic sounding name the salad leaves have, it’s pretty much going to taste like someone took a chunk out of the yard and mixed it with blue cheese, walnuts and pears. Cover it with enough raspberry vinaigrette to smooth out the turfy edge.

Then, there’s wine. If you’re consistently disappointed by the wine choices in restaurants because they never carry the boxes you like, you’re going to find Californians’ attitudes toward wine complex and annoying. Some Golden Staters, lacking meaningful career achievements, family or even warm-blooded pets from whom to draw meaning in life, turn to their knowledge of wine for satisfaction, even if most of this knowledge comes from the label of the bottle they happen to be drinking at the time. To this weird crowd, status comes from being able to jabber in some detail about astonishingly dull differences between wines you’ve never heard of and won’t be able to tell apart from Ernest and Julio’s after 2 or 3 glasses anyway. It’s startling how truly uninteresting this topic can be. If you ever get trapped in a conversation with one of these people, listen politely for five minutes, then look them dead in the eye and explain how you make wine at home by sticking some straws in a plastic bag full of water and fruit rinds. That ought to stop their rant. For them, though, it’s like therapy: they feel like big shots who are better than everybody else, while still remaining committed to drinking during the daytime. There’s something to be said for that.

As you can imagine, there’s not a lot of agreement about the finer points of fine wine. In Sonoma County, there’s practically a civil war afoot between hippified forces of organic wine-makers and the big company phonies who buy out the L.L. Bean catalog before moving out to the country to play Dr. Frankenwine in their bio-tech based wineries. This November, it looks like residents of the county will be voting whether or not to ban the genetic alteration of wine grapes for the purposes of making wine. On the hippie side, the widow of the late uber-stoner Jerry Garcia of the Grateful dead has decided to commission a little film about the evils of genetically altered wine. The word is that she wants to make a “Fahrenheit 9/11” type of film wherein angry, hard-hitting criticisms of her political opponents are combined with total lies and blended together so that no one can tell. On the nameless, faceless evil corporation side, the leaders claim that if their side wins, they promise to come up with a new species of wine grape that makes you a great conversationalist that everyone thinks is hilarious after drinking just 4 or 5 glasses. The effects are only temporary.

They also think they can develop a strain of grapes that resists glassy-winged sharpshooters, who are a lot less armed and dangerous than they sound. Of course, it’s easy for me to say that, since I’m not a grape, which is what these little buggers feast on. I’m sure mother and father grapes tell their grapelings fairy tales about staying away from the Big Bad Glassy-Winged Sharpshooter before bed as a way to scare them straight.

Come to think of it, talking about glassy-winged sharpshooters is just the kind of eyelid-drooping detail that got this whole wine discussion started. I’m sorry I mentioned it.

The stakes here just don’t seem so high, so I think it’s safe for all of us either to ignore the whole thing or find a way to make ourselves feel better about ourselves at their expense for a change. Here’s my suggestion: when the millionaire hippie winemakers and the glassy-eyed big business grape farmers start debating if it’s best to breed super grapes or just to use extra horse poo to bring out the subtle-yet-pungent aspects of the flavor, just pretend you’re watching one of those old Lite beer commercials and picture the two sides repeating: “Tastes Great! Less Filling! Tastes Great! Less Filling! Tastes Great! Less Filling!”

Now THAT was a debate worth watching.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Letter from California-March 28, 2005

I have a lot of respect for investigative reporters. They seek The Truth vigorously and relentlessly, like a wine-o searching for winning tickets on the ground at the racetrack, as if nothing else mattered. They’re tough-minded professionals who do what it takes and go where the story is.

The problem, of course, is that sometimes The Truth hangs out in some pretty bad neighborhoods. And a lot of times the truth is out of town or even up in the Bay Area or someplace else that would involve getting off my sofa. As much as I admire investigative journalists, I like to do my writing in the Homer Simpson pajamas that I bought at Target and that doesn’t go over big in the dive bars and dark alleys where The Truth likes to spend its free time. I consider it “field work” when I have to get up and refill my coffee. You can see the problem.

Conveniently, hard working suckers, I mean, professional journalists do all the unpleasant schlepping around getting the news, and all I have to do is walk out to my curb and pick up the paper. If that’s too far, I save a few steps and just read it on the Internet, but either way, the news comes to me, not the other way around.

So safely writing from my sanctuary, I’m free to make wisecracks about the stories of life in California they busted their hump to get. No muss, no fuss. Even better, the fruitbats, wingnuts, loons and Woody Harrelson usually live somewhere else, so there’s not much chance I’ll bump into them waiting in line at the juice bar and feel embarrassed that I called them wingnuts. Usually there’s a nice safe distance, but this week, Crazytown is my own backyard.

Well, it’s not exactly my backyard, but it is the backyard of one of my neighbors. Tim Dundon, 62 years old, living only a few blocks from me here in Altadena, California, has made the news for the 60-foot tall compost heap he has been building since 1974. I know what you’re thinking: “wow, that’s one tall compost heap.” Yes, it is. Very tall. It’s so tall Altadena should mention it on the signs marking the town limit: “Altadena, Home of California’s Tallest Backyard Compost Heap.” It sure beats the old slogan: “Altadena, Land of 10,000 Skunks.”

Dundon, also known as “Zeke the Sheikh” for his occasional wearing of a costume-store Arab Sheikh get-up, has used his compost heap to grow a spectacular tropical garden that only has one flaw: it’s next to a 60 foot compost heap. Still, he’s a good sharer. Anybody can add to or take from the big steaming pile of Sheikh for growing his or her own garden. It’s like a public library or one of those trays at the gas station where you “take a penny or leave a penny” except everything in it is rotting and potentially combustible.

But there’s trouble in this festering paradise, and it looks like Dundon’s pile is in deep dung. Starting two years ago, when L.A. County, who were afraid the pile would come to life and eat the city, tried to get him shut down, Dundon has had to battle to keep his life’s work going. Now, there’s another force on the horizon that wants to see Dundon removed and his land put to other use and it looks like this time, they’ve got the upper hand. Dundon says he’ll fight to keep his work alive and make sure the land remains a compost pile forever. The neighbors mostly believe in what he’s doing. In fact, Zeke the Sheikh has fans all over town, so what possible problem could there be?

Just one little one: the land isn’t his. It belongs to the Mountain View Cemetery, who recently got the news that the land won’t ever be allowed to be used for their creepy but necessary purposes, and so they have decided to sell it.

Naturally, Dundon had a comment, and it rhymed: “This is the tower of power that makes the people behind Katie Couric and Matt Lauer quiver and cower because it generates the power that makes a flower.” Uh huh.

Now that the property is on the market, Zeke the Sheikh has resorted to more than just nonsensical rhymes, though. He declared last Friday “Bad Friday” and started parading around the normally sane streets of Altadena with a costume-store Jesus get-up and carrying a cross. He’s also promised to add a crown of thorns on Sunday. I can’t verify that because, you know, I’m in my pajamas, but I can verify that Dundon has officially gone on my list of men who are drama queens. It’s a short list and he’s the first manual laborer on it.

One of his neighbors proposed a solution, according to the Pasadena Star-News, involving a trade of one of his other properties for the land with the heap. The attorney for the cemetery said they’d consider that but Dundon refused, saying “Are you kidding me? The place is nothing but a dump!” Ok, he didn’t really say that, but he did refuse, saying he didn’t think he should have to give anything up to keep his life’s work. Try to see the logic from the cemetery’s side: he puts 30 years worth of rotting plants on your property and you let him because you’re nice. Eventually, you decide to sell the property and he responds with his own low-budget, high-crazy-level production of “The Passion of the Zeke” with you as the murderous Romans. You offer to trade him for another property but he says he feels entitled to keep your land because…well, it’s the ‘because’ part that keeps stumping me.

Dundon says he doesn’t want to fight this fight, but “I’ve got to do it.” Oh, yes, he must. The voices in his head get angry when he doesn’t do what they say, and right now they say, “Zeke, protect the pile and make yourself look like a lunatic in the process!”

Mission accomplished, Tim. Take that, Katie Couric and Matt Lauer.